As I was looking through SOFREP’s “Coalition SOF” articles, I noticed there weren’t any stories about Afghan SOF. Even if you think the phrase “Afghan SOF” is an oxymoron (which I think it is), there is still value in reporting our assessments and experiences working with them.
My experience with Afghan SOF involved training and operating with Commandos and their Special Forces.
If I were to draw comparisons to the US military, for ease of reference, I would compare the ANASF to our Special Forces and the Commandos to our Rangers. The ANASF are organized in small teams, with staffing identical to our ODAs. The Commandos are garrisoned by battalion- or Kandak- with three to four companies each. As USSOF in Afghanistan, teams assigned to conduct village stability ops (VSO) are often paired with an ANASF team, plus additional conventional units like ANA, AUP or the dreaded “green on blue” poster children: the ALP. Those USSOF teams not saddled with the burden of VSO, are typically partnered with a Kandak. These Commando teams are usually required to take Afghan Commandos out on missions.
The Commandos (CDOs)
To the best of my knowledge, there are nine Commando Kandaks. I have experience with four Commando Kandaks and its my observation that the strength, efficiency and performance of these Kandaks vary greatly. I’ve operated with a Kandak that was capable of conducting their own successful unilateral patrols. And I’ve been exposed to others that were understaffed, combat ineffective and incapable of even conducting missions alongside their American counterparts.
Due to the tribal dynamic within Afghan culture, some of the Kandaks are staffed along ethnic lines. There will be companies segregated as Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, etc. I have even heard of entire Kandaks being manned along tribal lines. During many sessions of drinking chai and chain-smoking crappy cigarettes with my CDOs, I have gained insight into the leadership philosophy that is prevalent within the Afghan ranks: knowledge and experience are not spread loaded across platoons, companies and Kandaks; it is hoarded jealously.
This command philosophy comes across as completely assbackward to those of us within the US military, but in the Afghan military it can be SOP. I have witnessed this dynamic play out when I was working with the 4th Kandak. 4th Kandak had three fully staffed companies and were still building up their fourth. After 90 days of observing, advising and operating with them, it became painfully obvious that they had one capable company, one dysfunctional company and the other company you did not want anywhere near you.
During one of my many tea parties, I asked the CO of the most capable company why his men were so locked on but the other two companies were so ate up. This Company Commander was as close to trustworthy and reliable as it gets in Afghanistan, and he shared with me the command philosophy rampant in the Afghan military: “It looks better if you have one good company and two bad, instead of having three average companies.”
So, with the CDOs, it seems to be a craps shoot. If you’re lucky, you might get partnered with a decent Kandak. Or you might get sidelined with a worthless Kandak that proves to be a liability.
My experience with the ANASF was not as in-depth as was my time with the Commandos. However, I do have operational experience with more than one Afghan Special Forces team.
ANASF teams are structured identically to our ODAs. During their training, they break down into their military specialties and receive lessons on their particular duties- comm, weapons, engineer and medical. During their Q course, they undergo individual instruction for their specialty and then regroup into student teams for more training.
At Camp Morehead, civilian contractors account for most of the lead instructors. Supporting the instructors are a cadre of veteran ANA soldiers, acting as mentors to the students. Overseeing the entire ‘ghan Q course was a permanent personnel staff of Canadian SOF and some 19th and 20th Group operator-advisors.
At Morehead, there is a well-organized and relevant curriculum. Their culminating exercise was reminiscent of Robin Sage. The students were organized into teams and they were given a mock VSO mission, in a real village, on the outskirts of Kabul.
By speaking to the NATO, civilian and senior Afghan staff, I was able to learn some unsettling aspects of the ANASF and their training. First: the selection process. Soldiers are supposed to be selected based on aptitude and experience. However, the selection standards were inconsistent and corrupt. If you had family with rank, you could get into ANASF with zero experience. Some students had shady backgrounds.
Second: I observed that the ANASF, more often than not, displayed a negative attitude and poor discipline. I first took notice of it during operations with two separate ANASF teams. They seemed to have this sense of entitlement as though they were seasoned Tier 1 assets. I know SOF attracts type A personalities, some with huge egos, but what I saw in many of the ANASF could best be described as bitchy divas. A lot of them (based on my limited experience) would avoid participating in mission planning, training or would outright refuse to work with other Afghan forces. And although they shied away from the work required of a SOF unit, they sure did dress the part. They made every effort to look like their USSOF counterparts – baseball caps, a hodgepodge of different uniform items, Gucci shades, you name it.
My experience with the ANASF was much less than the Commandos, but my assessment was that the latter displayed more discipline and motivation than the former.
SOF is a relative term and Afghanistan is by no means on the cutting edge of modern warfare. What is significant is that USSOF and our coalition allies have spent the better part of a decade building and mentoring their “elite” soldiers. As we inch closer toward a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the “SOF” units we leave behind. When the ANASF and Commandos no longer have us to depend on, how will they maintain the discipline and standards we’ve tried to instill in them? And will the skills we taught them remain an asset to the state or will they find their way into the ranks of those we once considered our enemy ?